Thursday, July 2, 2009

Poor in Spirit

Jesus Preaches on a Mountainside

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

John the Baptizer came preaching a message of repentance. All who repented of their sins were washed in the Baptism to prepare them to meet their savior, Jesus Christ. The Pharisees also came to hear John’s message, but only to see what was drawing all the people out into the wilderness. The Pharisees thought that their “good works” were sufficient so they felt no need to repent, and did not. They were not baptized, and were subsequently unprepared to meet their savior when He began His ministry.

When John saw the Pharisees listening to his call for repentance, but refusing to repent of their sins, he proclaimed their wicked unfaithfulness to God, much to their dismay and to the surprise of the people who considered them holy. John said, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matthew 3:7), and called them poisonous serpents.

The Pharisees wrongly felt that they were so rich in spirit that they did not need to repent, nor did they need to rely on the mercy of Christ to save them from God’s wrath, so they were unprepared to recognize their savior when He came and stood right in front of their eyes.

Lest you think that John was too harsh on the Pharisees, Jesus also came preaching repentance and He called the Pharisees “sons of hell” (Matthew 23:15) and “hypocrites” and “whitewashed corpses” among other things (Matthew 23:27).

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus preached that God gives the kingdom of heaven those who are “poor in spirit.” The “spiritually poor” are those who recognize the poverty of their own spirit to save themselves. They know that they must rely on God’s mercy through Jesus Christ in order to escape God’s wrath over their sin, so they cling to Jesus who brings them to heaven and generously shares with them His eternal heavenly inheritance.

The Pharisees thought themselves “rich in spirit.” They believed that God favored them because they were righteous, holy people who didn’t need to repent of their sins. They rejected Jesus and their salvation because they refused to see how lost they were. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:24) Beware of those modern Pharisees who would explain away this passage as referring to some small, but passable gate in Jerusalem. It was just as impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle in ancient times as it is today. Jesus taught that it is impossible for anyone to be saved if he trusts in his own richness of spirit instead of Christ’s works to save him.

Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the Sycamore tree
Jesus also teaches this in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. (Luke 18:10-14) In this story the Pharisee brags about himself before God, but his empty prayer falls on deaf ears. The tax collector, however, agonizes over his sin and pleads, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” God hears this honest, faithful prayer and forgives his wickedness. Thus, having been forgiven his sins, the kingdom of heaven is opened to him.

You are not likely to hear the popular preachers of our day telling you to proclaim to God and the world your poverty of spirit or your unworthiness for the blessings of God’s kingdom. Most popular preachers are more like the Pharisees. They tell you that God wants you to be rich and successful in this life. They tell you that the few good things you do please God enough to receive His favor, or if you aren’t good enough yet, you could be with just a little effort on your part. This is why these preachers are so popular and why it is so easy to be a Pharisee. We all want to be rich and successful. We want to believe that God favors us because we are so good, or at least that we are better than the next guy in some way. But this is all wickedness and lies which lead us to trust in ourselves and reject Christ.

The faithful preachers of today are the ones who teach us to emulate Saint Paul who called himself the “chief of sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16) Yes, it goes against all sinful human logic to see how God is going to welcome you into Paradise when you stand before Him and proclaim that you are the worst, wicked sinner who only deserves punishment. But Saint Paul isn’t bragging about his wickedness as if that would save him. He is bragging about Christ’s mercy and forgiveness – that Christ would forgive such a wicked person as Paul and give him the riches of His heavenly kingdom.

It also is contrary to common sense how telling people of the poverty of their spirit would be a successful evangelism tool. It’s true that you are not likely to fill your church or get rich by telling people just how wicked they are, but neither will you save their souls by lying to them and telling them that they are (or could be) so good that they don’t need Christ to save them. It is so easy for preachers to tell the people what they want to hear. The parishioners will be glad to hear of their goodness and will reward the wicked preacher with praise and monetary blessings – at least until that day when they must stand before Jesus and explain why they think they are better than He is. Then these people won’t be so happy with their false pastors and will curse them forever. On the other hand, those people who hear the hard message and believe in Jesus will receive eternal salvation in Christ’s heavenly kingdom.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When Jesus began to teach hard things that the people couldn’t accept He didn’t soften his message to keep them in the congregation. Instead He taught harder things which seemed to only drive more people away. Then, when He saw that His disciples were still with Him, He asked them, “What about you? Don’t you want to leave, too?” Peter answered for the disciples, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68)

The blessings of the Beatitudes do not come because of our worthiness. We poor sinners are blessed because Jesus has redeemed us through His perfect life and His innocent suffering and death. We should not necessarily strive to be poor, meek, persecuted, etc., instead we should only recognize that we are those things simply because we are sinners and would be condemned were it not for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Christ is our blessing both now and for eternity, no matter what our state or station in life.

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